The New Carthage/Part I/Chapter II
THE STONE MILL
On his second visit and on those which followed, when vacations sent him home to his guardians, Laurent found himself no more acclimated than he had been on the first day. Each time he seemed to fall in upon them from the moon and take up space.
They did not wait until he had put down his satchel to find out the length of his stay, and they were more anxious about the state of his clothes than they were about himself. A welcome utterly without effusion: Cousin Lydia mechanically offered him her lemon-like cheek, Gina appeared to have forgotten him since the last time, and as for Cousin William, he did not expect to be disturbed at his business for so small a matter as the arrival of a young rapscallion whom he would see soon enough at the next meal.
"Ah! So there you are, eh? Have you been good? Have you improved in your studies?"
Always the same questions, asked with an air of doubt, never of encouragement. If Laurent brought home a prize it was ever his bad luck that it was one of those to which Monsieur Dobouziez attached no importance.
At the table, the round eyes of Cousin Lydia, implacably levelled at him, seemed to reproach him for the lusty appetite of his twelve years. Truly, she made him let fall glasses from his fingers and morsels from his fork. These accidents did not always earn him the epithet of clumsy, but his cousin could make a contemptuous little grimace which told her thoughts very clearly. And this grimace was as nothing compared to the bantering smile of the impeccable Gina.
Cousin William, whom it was necessary to call several times before the family took their places at the table, would finally arrive, his expression preoccupied, his mind upon a new invention, computing the results, calculating the probable income from one or another improvement, his brain crammed with figures.
With his wife Monsieur Dobouziez talked shop and she understood it admirably, and when answering him made use of barbarous technical words that would have proved a stumbling block to many a man in the same business.
Monsieur Dobouziez never ceased figuring, and relaxed only to admire and cajole his daughter. More and more Laurent came to feel the absolute and almost idolatrous understanding existing between them. If the man of business became human in troubling himself about her, then, reciprocally, Gina abandoned, with her father, her airs of superiority, her little manner of conceit and detachment. Monsieur Dobouziez anticipated her desires, satisfied her least caprice, defended her even against her mother. With Gina he, the practical and matter-of-fact man, amused himself in futilities.
On each vacation Laurent found his little cousin more beautiful and more distant. Her parents had withdrawn her from school, and able, worldly tutors were preparing her for the destiny of an opulent heiress.
Having become too big a girl, too much the young lady to amuse herself with the boy, she entertained or visited friends of her own age. The little Vanderling girls, daughters of the most celebrated lawyer of the city, two blonde and lively little gossips were her boon companions, in both studies and pleasures. And if, by exception, lacking any other company, Gina so far forgot herself as to play with the Peasant, Cousin Lydia immediately found a pretext for interrupting this recreation. She would send Felicité to warn Mademoiselle of the arrival of some professor, or the dressmaker would be bringing a dress for her to try on, or it would be time for her to practise upon the piano. Felicité, who had been worthily trained, usually anticipated her mistress's intentions and carried out this kind of mission with the most laudable zeal. Laurent had nothing to do but to amuse himself as best he could.
The factory was becoming so prosperous that each year new installations were being made; sheds, workrooms, stores began to encroach upon the gardens surrounding the house. Laurent witnessed, not without regret, the disappearance of the Labyrinth with its tower, its pond and its ducks; that abomination had become dear to him because of Gina.
The house also annexed a part of the garden. In view of the coming debût of their daughter the Dobouziez's were erecting a veritable palace containing a suite of rooms decorated and furnished by the most aristocratic interior decorators. Cousin William seemed to preside over these embellishments, but he always deferred to the selection and the taste of his daughter. He had already contrived for the spoiled child a delicious little suite of two rooms, done in blue and silver, which would have delighted the heart of any lady of elegance.
The physiognomy of young Paridael's room changed like that of the others. His mansard under the roofs assumed a more and more provisional appearance. It seemed as if a deliberate malice had presided over the destiny of the young collegian's lodging. Felicité had cleared out only a space sufficient to hold a folding bed.
The attic no longer offered enough room in which to store away the rubbish accruing from the former furnishings of the house, and, preferring not to cumber the servants' rooms with such bric-a-brac, the housekeeper transported them to Laurent's retreat. She put so much zeal into doing this that the child already foresaw the time when he would have to emigrate to the stair-landing. At heart he was not displeased by this investiture. The conversion of his quarters into a place of confusion produced unforeseen and charming results. A certain sympathy, arising from the similarity of their condition, was established between the forlorn orphan and the objects which had ceased to please. But that Laurent amused himself with these old things was sufficient excuse for the amiable factotum to remove them elsewhere. To conceal his treasures and secrete his finds, the young rogue resorted to the ruses of a true smuggler.
In this garret were hoarded up, to the great joy of the refractory youth, the books condemned as too frivolous by Monsieur Dobouziez. Forbidden fruit, like the raspberries and nectarines in the gardens! The mice had already nibbled powdery holes in them, and Laurent took delight in what the voracious little beasts had the good grace to leave him of this literature. Often he became so absorbed in his reading that he forgot all precautions. Walking on tip-toe so that she might give him no warning, Felicité would take him by surprise in his asylum. If she did not catch him red-handed at the prohibited reading, the old devil would perceive that he had rummaged over the shelves and upset the books. Then came a squall from the shrew, and howls from the punished, which ended by exciting Cousin Lydia.
Once he was caught in the act of reading "Paul and Virginia." "A bad book! You would do better to study your arithmetic!" she admonished. And Monsieur Dobouziez ratified the decree of his better half by adding that the precocious scapegrace, too great a reader and too much the dreamer, would never amount to anything, would remain all his life a poor devil like Jacques Paridael. A dreamer! What scorn Cousin William put into that word!
On winter evenings, Laurent rejoiced in gaining his dear attic as early as he could. Downstairs in the dining-room, where they detained him after dinner, he felt himself a bore and a nuisance. Why did they not send him up to bed! If he suppressed a desire to stretch, if he yawned, if he took his eyes off the school book before the clock struck ten, the sacramental hour. Cousin Lydia would roll her round eyes, and Gina would bridle, affecting to be more wide awake than ever, and chiding the boy for his temper.
Even during the day, after some remonstrance or other, Laurent would run for his refuge under the roof.
Deprived of his books, he opened the skylight, climbed upon a chair, and surveyed the suburb.
Low, red, suburban houses huddled together in compact blocks. The growing city, having broken through its girdling ramparts, had designs upon the neighboring radish beds. Streets had already been planned, running in a straight line through the harvests. Pavements bordered fields exploited until the last moment by the expropriated peasant. In the midst of harvests there emerged, at the top of a stake, like a scarecrow, signs bearing this phrase: "Building Plots." And, veritable scouts, sentinels sent in advance by the army of urban construction, saloons took the corners of the new streets, and from the height of their many-storied, ordinary facades, new, but already of a sordid aspect, surveyed the stubble, cut short and gathered in and seeming to implore the clemency of the invaders. There is nothing as suggestive as the meeting of the country and the city. They riot in a real combat of outposts.
The plethoric, unnatural, shy appearance of the landscape was darkened by the embankments of the fortifications: crenelated doors, sombre as tunnels, crushed under platforms; walls pierced by loopholes; barracks from which plaintive bugles replied to the factory clock.
Three windmills, straggling in the fields, turned in full flight, playing their last stake while waiting to share the lot of a fourth, whose stone walls rose pitiably above the scaffolding against which was rising a tenement of workingmen's hovels, and whose wings the besiegers, with the customary behaviour of the rabble, had cut away like drunken bird-catchers.
Laurent sympathized with the poor dismantled mill without coming to detest the population of the little streets that hugged it, hard-hitters and habitual vagabonds, heroes of many a sinister adventure, a tormenting race which the police did not always dare to grapple with in its own haunts. These "millers of the stone mill" were among the most sturdy ruffians of the city scum. The prowlers on the docks and the fresh water sharks, better known under the name of "runners" came chiefly from these waters.
But even aside from this gang of irregulars and criminals, whom Laurent came in time to know at closer range, the rest of this half-urban, half-rural population, a hard-working and tractable people, sufficed to invite and preoccupy the speculative child. Besides, the millers inevitably gave the neighborhood its color; they sprinkled with a vulgar and spicy leaven these fugitives from the villages, farm laborers turned masons and dockers, or, reciprocally, artisans turned market-gardeners, and work girls become dairy maids. By scratching the bully, one could find the cowherd; the butcher's boy had been a herdsman. Strange mongrels, sullen and fanatical as in a village, cynics and fault finders as in the city, at once surly and unreserved, truculent and lustful, fundamentally believers and superficially blasphemers, awkward and sharp-witted, patriotic, chauvinistic, their hybrid and badly defined character, their tawny, muscled and sanguine complexion endeared them, perhaps from that time forth, to the kindred barbarian, the vibrant and complex brute that was Paridael.
For a long time these affinities smouldered, vague, instinctive, latent within him.
Standing upon his chair, the view of the far lying suburb beneath him, he saturated himself in his homesickness and tore himself away from his morbid contemplation only when he had reached the point of tears. And then, falling to his knees or rolling upon his bed, he poured out in a flood of tears all the bitterness and distress that had accumulated within him. And the sprightly noise of the mills, clear and detached like the laugh of Gina, and the snarling of the factory, grumbling and disdainful as a rebuff from Felicité, accompanied and stimulated the slow and full fall of his tears, mild and enervating showers of a weary April. And this bantering, tormenting lullaby seemed to repeat: "More!… More!… More!…"